Slowdown of the greening trend in natural vegetation with further rise in atmospheric CO2

Alexander J. Winkler, Ranga B. Myneni, Alexis Hannart, Stephen Sitch, Vanessa Haverd, Danica Lombardozzi, Vivek K. Arora, Julia Pongratz, Julia E.M.S. Nabel, Daniel S. Goll, Etsushi Kato, Hanqin Tian, Almut Arneth, Pierre Friedlingstein, Atul K. Jain, Sönke Zaehle, Victor Brovkin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Satellite data reveal widespread changes in Earth's vegetation cover. Regions intensively attended to by humans are mostly greening due to land management. Natural vegetation, on the other hand, is exhibiting patterns of both greening and browning in all continents. Factors linked to anthropogenic carbon emissions, such as CO2 fertilization, climate change, and consequent disturbances such as fires and droughts, are hypothesized to be key drivers of changes in natural vegetation. A rigorous regional attribution at the biome level that can be scaled to a global picture of what is behind the observed changes is currently lacking. Here we analyze different datasets of decades-long satellite observations of global leaf area index (LAI, 1981-2017) as well as other proxies for vegetation changes and identify several clusters of significant long-term changes. Using process-based model simulations (Earth system and land surface models), we disentangle the effects of anthropogenic carbon emissions on LAI in a probabilistic setting applying causal counterfactual theory. The analysis prominently indicates the effects of climate change on many biomes-warming in northern ecosystems (greening) and rainfall anomalies in tropical biomes (browning). The probabilistic attribution method clearly identifies the CO2 fertilization effect as the dominant driver in only two biomes, the temperate forests and cool grasslands, challenging the view of a dominant global-scale effect. Altogether, our analysis reveals a slowing down of greening and strengthening of browning trends, particularly in the last 2 decades. Most models substantially underestimate the emerging vegetation browning, especially in the tropical rainforests. Leaf area loss in these productive ecosystems could be an early indicator of a slowdown in the terrestrial carbon sink. Models need to account for this effect to realize plausible climate projections of the 21st century.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4985-5010
Number of pages26
Issue number17
StatePublished - Sep 13 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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